Thursday, May 20, 2021

Adirondack Nature Conservancy – An Unheralded Founder

carl george

Adirondack fiftieth anniversaries abound. While visiting the Adirondack Nature Conservancy website this week I am reminded of this chapter’s founding fifty years ago. Like the legislative formation of the NYS Adirondack Park Agency, an Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy was one of the 181 recommendations of the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, which reported to Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the public in 1970.

The commission’s final recommendation, #181, read: “an Adirondack Nature Conservancy to encourage gifts in the Adirondack Park should be established by private interests.”

That is all it says.

On the report’s final page, the commission expands somewhat on # 181, to this extent: “to encourage private donations of land and money, the Commission recommends the establishment of an Adirondack Nature Conservancy. The state has often been without funds when crucial tracts have come on the market…. this privately financed organization would acquire lands for later resale to the state. An Adirondack Nature Conservancy will focus private philanthropy effectively on the Adirondack Park.”

It has, indeed, done so, from its first big protection project – Santanoni Preserve in Newcomb in 1972 – to the present day.

The ANC’s website reports the facts and figures – 577,000 Adirondack acres that this chapter of TNC has protected since its founding in 1971. 185,000 acres (like Santanoni) of that has gone into the Adirondack Forest Preserve, while over 364,000 acres has remained private land under conservation easement negotiated by the chapter and its partners. 28,000 acres are protected under TNC ownership or under ownership of other land trusts in the Adirondack region.

Recommendation 181 of the Study Commission and the many steps and actions to create and sustain the chapter have proven enormously consequential and positive for the Park. One example, one of many, will suffice here. Without an Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Finch, Pruyn and Company’s decision to sell all its 161,000 Adirondack acres at one time would have left NYS DEC helpless to respond, lacking the ability to come up with necessary cash quickly, as TNC and partner Open Space Institute were able to do that spring of 2007.  The chapter’s talented executive director Mike Carr then worked with the state, with industry, with the affected townships and all stakeholders to move the project ahead.  Later results included over 90,000-acres of productive forestland under permanent conservation easement, as well as the Essex Chain Primitive Area and Boreas Ponds, now part of the High Peaks Wilderness.

Executive Directors of the chapter, including Tim Barnett, Mike Carr, and Peg Olsen – and their remarkable board leaders and hard-working staff join the founders for much deserved recognition on this 50th anniversary.

However, one founder who has not received much recognition is Carl J. George. He is a founding board member and now an advisor to Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.  I recently asked Carl about the formation of the Adirondack Chapter of TNC.

In 1971 professor Carl George was teaching Biological Sciences at Union College when he took note of recommendation #181 in the Temporary Study Commission report. In his spare time, Carl chaired the board of the largest Nature Conservancy chapter in our area, the Eastern New York Chapter. As he recently told me, by 1971 this “alpha chapter” of TNC already had a huge region and set of interested landowners and landscapes to cover. The chapter felt overextended in responding to land protection projects in every corner of the six-million-acre Adirondack region.

Another kind of leader of the large and influential Eastern New York chapter of TNC might have felt that “giving up” the Adirondacks to a new chapter would constitute a loss of influence, members, prestige.  Such a reaction is simply not in Carl George’s character. He thinks globally, he shares readily, and he addresses problems constructively and in common cause with others.  His Union College students around the world can attest to these and many other traits.  Also, and very fortunately for the founding of the Adirondack chapter, Carl had many contacts concerned with the Adirondacks.  Immediately after reading recommendation 181, George phoned Adirondack conservation leader Paul Schaefer. From the list Paul gave him, and from others on Carl’s extensive rolodex, there quickly followed personal calls from Carl George to 25 people who might serve on an Adirondack chapter board.

Many of those individuals showed up for the first Adirondack chapter organizing meeting held by Carl and Gail George at Union College. Union College is where the future Adirondack chapter originated. Enough was accomplished at Union College that day to move to the next step. Carl convened another meeting in the Lake George area, at which time and place the organizers would nominate and select a chapter chair.

At the Lake George meeting, two with roots in Essex and Clinton Counties, Arthur Savage, affiliated with the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, and Wayne Byrne, affiliated with the Adirondack Mountain Club, were named co-chairs of an Adirondack Conservancy Committee board. Later in 1971, the Adirondack Conservancy Committee met in New York City to take the first steps in an option to acquire 12,500 acres in Newcomb – what became the Santanoni Preserve.

Arthur Savage, Wayne Byrne, Paul Schaefer, Winnie LaRose, Pat Noonan, Courtney Jones, Arthur Crocker and other committee leaders– they deserve all the credit for getting the Adirondack chapter of The Nature Conservancy truly up and running. Their story is told in the newly published book by Brad Edmondson, A Wild Idea (Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press). The next big step for them all was the hiring of Tim Barnett as the chapter’s first Executive Director. That 1972 hiring, too, is an enormously consequential story for the Adirondacks briefly recounted in Edmondson’s new book. Tim’s accomplishments over the next 25 years merit book treatment all on their own.

But none of it might have happened, or happened so quickly after the Temporary Study Commission reported without the Adirondack attentiveness, friends, collegiality and sense of urgency of Carl George, Union College Professor of Biological Sciences, teacher,  naturalist, author, inventor, explorer, mentor, friend, and humanist.

Carl George, right, with Dave Gibson at the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College

Photo by Margaret Amodeo, Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

5 Responses

  1. Dean D Lefebvre says:

    Great informative article Dave.

    Keep up your good w

  2. louis curth says:

    Thanks Dave for sweeping the dust of time from my own memories of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and of my very first encounter with Carl George.

    With our first Earth Day of 1970 behind us, our Upper Hudson Environmental Action Committee members were expanding their interest in the whole panoply of other Adirondack issues. When I read that there was to be a meeting of something called the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, naturally, I wanted to know more.

    I remember driving to Lake George where the meeting was held in the old brick courthouse building in the village. The meeting was called to order by Carl George, and as he conducted the business of the meeting, I realized that I was in the presence of a master of the art of how to conduct a meeting under Robert’s Rules of Order.
    I went home that day with Carl George as my role model for how to properly conduct a meeting.

    Many years later, we would work together on other environmental projects and I would be even more impressed with this talented conservation leader. But I will never forget that very first impression of Carl George, and I’m pretty sure that I joined the Adirondack Conservancy that day as a result.

  3. Reading “A Wild Idea” right now. Great book

  4. Phil Terrie says:

    Hurrah for Carl George: Adirondack advocate, scientist, and good guy!

  5. Mick Finn says:

    Would you explain Charitable Remainder Trusts and their use in conservation finance please? How is taxpayer money transferred to hedge fund owners and the super wealthy under the guise of resource “protection “.
    Thanks in advance!